Civil Liberties

Constitution Kerfuffle

Free speech in Hawaii


At the end of April, the free-speech defenders at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a student who committed the heinous crime of handing out tiny copies of the U.S. Constitution at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

On January 16, 2014, campus Young Americans for Liberty president Merritt Burch attended a student event and started handing out pocket Constitutions and information cards about his group. According to the complaint, "an administrator ordered Burch and her companion to stop approaching students and get back behind their table, dismissing Burch's protest about her constitutional rights."

A week later, the university told Burch she was only allowed to pass out literature and Constitutions in the university's "free speech zone," a tiny muddy plot on the edge of campus. Asked for a justification, administrators explained that "this isn't really the '60s anymore."

Burch is challenging the university's speech-restricting policies in Hawaii's U.S. District Court, including policies that the complaint alleges "unconstitutionally restricts access to open areas on campus by requiring students to seek permission to speak at least seven business days in advance and by limiting the areas where students may engage in spontaneous expressive activities to only 0.26 percent of UH Hilo's 115-acre campus."

FIRE recently helped a student successfully settle a similar suit against Modesto Junior College in California.